Mail balloting needed to determine vote on diocesan assessment increase

This story appears in the USCCB Fall 2014 feature series. View the full series.

Mark Pattison

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A proposed 3 percent hike in diocesan assessments for 2016 to fund the U.S. bishops' national operations fell three votes short of approval in electronic balloting Tuesday during the second day of the bishops' annual fall general assembly in Baltimore.

Under the electronic balloting system, votes are kept secret, but the system knows which bishops vote, so the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will send mail ballots to complete the vote.

The vote requires approval by two-thirds of all diocesan and eparchial heads, or their equivalents in law. Under the current numbers, that would require 131 bishops to vote yes. The electronic tally showed 128 voting yes, with 31 voting no and three others abstaining.

"I guess we've had national elections like that, where we don't know the results for a month or so," said Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., USCCB president, after the results were announced and the process for securing more votes explained.

The assessment increase was presented by Dallas Bishop Kevin Farrell, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Budget and Finance, as a way to avoid dipping into the bishops' investment fund year after year.

Since 2000, the diocesan assessment "has not kept pace with the CPI, the consumer price index," which has averaged 2 to 3 percent a year, Farrell said. "The spending power of the assessment has decreased over 140 percent between the year 2000 and the year 2014. If paid in today's dollars, the 2000 year assessment of $10.8 million would be, in today's dollars, $15 million. The 2014 assessment is $10.6 million, $200,000 less than it was factually in the year 2000."

Attributing the shortage, which Farrell put at approximately $4.5 million, "mainly to the CPI," he said, "The current pattern of increase and freeze is no longer sustainable for the [bishops'] conference. The Committee on Budget and Finance does not believe this is a sound or prudent financial practice."

With a 3 percent increase in assessments, the budget would come in at about $11.3 million, up $300,000 from the 2015 budget, which was approved earlier in the day 192-9 with seven abstentions.

"I am more than happy to propose an increase of more than 3 percent," Farrell joked, "but I am not wearing a bulletproof vest today."

With a 3 percent assessment increase, the smallest dioceses would face an increase of $25 a month. The three dioceses whose assessment comes in at $250,000 a year would pay $625 a month, Farrell said. The typical increase, he added, is $100 a month.

"What dos $100 a month buy?" he asked. "For those of you who still smoke, you are allowed one cigarette a day for 30 days. If you like to go to Starbucks, you can buy a cappuccino for 15 days."

Although the USCCB underwent a restructuring of its departments at its Washington headquarters in 2008, the same problems we've had from 2008 to the present day go back to 2000," Farrell said. "We have, obviously, reduced the size of the conference, but not form a consensus of the body of bishops. We have been forced to do it."

In response to a question, Farrell said he was working with diocesan financial managers to look at adjusting the assessment rates to take into account the amount of money generated in each diocese from second collections, with a proposal expected by the November 2015 general meeting.

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